The Images We Have: A Coffee Break with Pop

Today I took my Grandfather to an appointment.  Sort-of. He is 91 and still insists on driving, so we met at the office.  After a fairly quick consultation, we decided to head across the street to grab a cup of coffee at Panera…it soon became clear that this was Pop’s first time at the establishment.  Usually a man to jump at the chance for an afternoon nosh, he sternly objected to the three dollar danish and opted for just a small coffee. (I did not tell him how much his coffee cost!) After getting situated in our booth and dutifully discussing “administrative” items such as follow-up doctor visits, the price of his last heating oil delivery and the status of his grocery list, we sat in silence for a bit…which was surprisingly not awkward or unpleasant.

After a few minutes, he looked up at me and said, “You know, Sunday will be two months since your Baba died.”  I knew this and simply nodded my head.  (I still have a bit of trouble processing that fact.) He then proceeded to tell me something I did not know:

“We were supposed to go to California.”  

Huh? When? Last year?  I was confused.  The story continued like this:

“When I was working in the steel plant…hmm, maybe 50 years ago, I was a big ‘hot shot’.  You know, I was the best at what I did. All kinds of companies wanted me to work for them. I got this offer from a plant in California.  Your Baba and me were supposed to go there.”

I was shocked. California? My Baba and Pop?  Really, what on earth would they do in California?  Then it hit me, fifty years ago they were not ninety years old.  They were just about my age.  They went places, did things. And apparently, they could have gone to California. Then my brain quickly ran through how different things could have been: no long weekends at Baba and Pop’s house. No 3pm suppers and 6pm ice cream breaks. No McDonalds and Kmart Sunday mornings. Ultimately, Baba made the decision that she wanted to stay here – with her family, which time would eventually evolve into my family.

Throughout the conversation, Pop seemed to have a little glistening of tears in his eyes. As much as it was heartbreaking to watch, I was also fascinated to listen to him tell me about these people I didn’t quite recognize.  Right after she died, He gave me a few of her things – jewelry, coats, etc.  I did not give it much thought at the time, but as we looked over the camel-hair coats, some with fur shawls, all in impeccable condition, he told me that they used to go to downtown Norristown on Saturday nights.  Back then, as he told me, “It was the place to be”. Dinners, clubs, people everywhere. They ate, shopped, danced. They dressed in their timeless camel-hair coats with fur shawl collars…

As we were finishing our coffee, he looked at me and said, “Later on, she always said we should have gone to California. You know, just to see what it was like to go.”

We spent a total of 35 minutes sitting in that booth today, but I have the feeling that our conversation will have a long-term impact. First, I am pretty amazed at the obvious realization that my grandparents weren’t always grey haired, 90 and well, grandparents. They were for all intents and purposes, just like me. Working, playing, dreaming, with responsibilities and frivolity. With strong roots and enticing options. They had a whole lifetime of living before they were holding my hand at the playground and teaching me how important it was to bring chiclets to Church and wear a babushka when it rained.

Second, I believe in his story there is something to ponder about regret. I know for a fact that they never had regret about the time they spent here with us. I can feel that with as much certainty as I feel love for my own child. However, it is possible that there was regret for an opportunity not taken or a journey not traveled. I am not sure that I can come up with a resolved summation on this, but I do think its worth keeping front of mind and thinking through in greater detail.

We had a good coffee break today. And maybe, in 50 years, on a rainy day, when I am making my great-grandchild tighten her babushka, I’ll remember to tell her Mom about a time when I was “just like her”.

Enjoy your evening.

~ Beth

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